Wednesday, June 23, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Npr's Charming Susan Stamberg Is The `Talk' Of The Town

Among the tasty tidbits you can discover in an interview with Susan Stamberg, a k a Ms. National Public Radio, are these:

If she hadn't gone into radio journalism, she might have tried jazz singing: "Like Sarah Vaughn. But I'm a terrible singer. I have a very good sense of natural rhythm but I miss a lot of notes."

That if she had to come up with a drink that matches Hillary Clinton's personality, she would describe Clinton as sangria: "It's a drink with some substance. But fun, too." This is a compliment. Stamberg, who makes a habit of interviewing first ladies, has described Nancy Reagan as a glass of champagne "without the gaiety of bubbles" and Barbara Bush as "solid cream sherry. No nonsense. No frills."

That Stamberg's son, a 23-year-old aspiring actor, is working at one of the new East Coast Starbucks coffee shops. Ever the intrepid reporter - and one who prides herself on doing her homework - she wants to hunt up the original Seattle Starbucks shop to tell him about it: "Which one is it? Do you know? Maybe the one at Pike Place Market?"

And that in person, the journalist most associated with NPR's thoughtful, informed, behind-the-scenes approach to radio news and commentary is as charming, literate and outgoing as she is over the airwaves. And as good humored. Her big, ungirdled laugh - on or off the radio - is frequent and unmistakable.

Within an hour of landing at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport yesterday she seemed happy to be giving yet another interview as part of a 12-city publicity tour for her new book, "Talk." (Random House, $24)

The collection of 85 interviews, along with introductory notes and epilogues, are chronological, beginning with a 1971 interview with a civil-rights lawyer representing Vietnam protesters, and ending with a 1991 interview with then outgoing poet laureate Mark Strand, who lamented to Stamberg that he'd never been invited to the White House.

As an album of snapshots of the cultural and political landscape of the last 20 years, "Talk" is wonderful reading. The interviews chronicle the protest of the Vietnam years, the rise of feminism and "women's issues," America's first flirtation with health and and environmentalism, the debacle of Watergate, the phenomenon of Geraldine Ferraro, the fall of communism, the spread of AIDS.

In the interview she recalls as the most difficult of her career, she and "All Things Considered" co-host Bob Edwards in 1976 interviewed convicted Watergate felon John Ehrlichman. Stamberg writes that ". . . there was a cockiness about Ehrlichman, a sneering self-satisfaction that oozed out of radio and television sets whenever he appeared in news clips . . . To be in the presence of such a person - one with or without White House connections - unnerves me."

Her favorite out of the 20,000 interviews of her NPR career is a 1977 talk with author Joan Didion. In her great admiration for Didion, Stamberg over-prepared and stammered her way through the first 15 minutes. Once she relaxed, Stamberg says, the interview went so well that it was like allowing the NPR audience to eavesdrop on an interesting, natural conversation - which is Stamberg's definition of a perfect interview.

NPR fans and those who long for morsels about the lives of its stars will also find nuggets in "Talk." Readers will discover, among other things, that then NPR President Frank Mankiewicz turned down the chance to distribute a "Prairie Home Companion" as "too provincial," an error since the show later became a hit for the competing public station.

And in her explanatory notes to interviews with women acquaintances dying of cancer, Stamberg talks about her own 1986 bout with breast cancer, an ordeal Stamberg says left her "scrappier" but also "less driven."

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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